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Colorado bill eliminating death penalty fails on party-line vote as emotions run high

February 15, 2017 Updated: February 16, 2017 at 6:05 am
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FILE - This Sept. 21, 2010, file photo shows the death chamber of the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

An effort to eliminate the death penalty in Colorado was rejected by a legislative committee Wednesday night after an emotional hearing.

The effort from Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman failed on a party-line vote, with Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing the proposal.

The hearing included tear-jerking testimony from people who lost loved ones to murder, who said they found solace in the justice of capital punishment.

But Guzman offered her own perspective as a victim, having lost her father to murder more than 40 years ago. While her father was working at a service station, there was a robbery over $7 and some change. His skull was smashed with a wrench, and parts of it were found strewn across the floor.

It was always infuriating to Guzman that the man who was arrested was charged with manslaughter; not murder or robbery. But she said she never wished for the man who murdered her father to be sentenced to death, despite what she perceived as a light sentence.

"I want you to know that I'm a victim also," Guzman said. "I'm here tonight as a victim and as a victim advocate. I'm also here as someone who does not believe that we should be a society that kills people who kill people."

Senate Bill 95 was originally thought to fail with bipartisan opposition. But Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, asked to be replaced on the committee because she felt too connected to the subject this year. She was replaced by Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, who supported the measure.

Fields' son was murdered by two men sitting on death row. Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, were gunned down in 2005 as the two were expected to testify in a pending murder case.

Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray were both sentenced to death for their involvement in the murders, though they are moving through lengthy appeals steps. Fields said she didn't want to interfere with the continuing judicial process.

Her daughter, Maisha Fields, testified at the hearing Wednesday night, pointing out that the two men who killed her brother had already been sentenced to what amounted to life in prison for their role in another case.

"We were able to get justice - justice for Javad and Vivian. The only punishment that was available at that time, because the defendants were already serving a life sentence, was death," Maisha Fields said.

"I'm ashamed that we're here today because I feel as if all the hard work that the 12 jurors have done, the police department, and that the life that my brother and his girlfriend Vivian lived, will be in vain . Have the political courage to say 'no.'"

Lawmakers addressed the issue of repealing the death penalty for the first time in four years. Two efforts in the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2013 failed, one of which was sponsored by Fields. She said her opinion on the death penalty has "matured," though she still supports it.

A group has formed, the Better Priorities Initiative of Colorado, which is pushing a repeal. There are no current plans for a ballot measure, though that could change.

The group is building off of an effort in Nebraska, where proponents of overturning the death penalty believe they made significant progress. The Nebraska legislature repealed the death penalty in 2015 despite opposition led by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The success, however, was short-lived, as Nebraska voters in November reinstated the state's policy on capital punishment, with 61 percent voting to "repeal the repeal."

But given success in the legislature of the Republican state, proponents of a repeal believe there is a way to reach bipartisan consensus in Colorado as well.

High-profile cases have thrust Colorado into the spotlight, including jurors in Arapahoe County who could not unanimously agree to sentence the 2012 Aurora movie theater gunman to die by lethal injection. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, also upset some by granting a stay of execution to Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of murder for the 1993 deaths of four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese.

The governor's stance on the death penalty has evolved. In 2014, Hickenlooper outlined his reasons for opposing the death penalty, which opened him up to attacks from Republicans as he headed into re-election.

Critics of the death penalty point to costs, with some estimates placing it between $5 million and $10 million per year thanks to the need for extensive legal work.

The last time someone was executed in Colorado was in 1997. There are three people sitting on death row in the state.

Opponents of the death penalty also point to an inequity, highlighting that a gruesome crime committed in one jurisdiction could lead to capital punishment, but the same horrible crime in another district might not because of the discretion of prosecutors. At least two district attorneys, for Denver and Boulder, have expressed concerns with capital punishment.

Faith leaders held a news conference ahead of the hearing on Wednesday to express support for eliminating the death penalty. They feel capital punishment goes against religious values that support life over death.

But George Brauchler, the Arapahoe County prosecutor who sought the death penalty in the Aurora movie theater case, said the reason prosecutors use their discretion is because sometimes crimes are elevated to a higher status.

"The death penalty exists because not all murders are the same," said Brauchler, who is considering a run for governor in 2018. "If we're going to try to seek justice, what we try to do is distinguish, as much as we can, one person from another."

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